The modern day can look a little bit glum, but sometimes the grand sweep of history reminds us that we’ve been through a lot more and come out the other side, as historian Neil Oliver reminds Carl Marsh.
You have a new book, The Story Of The British Isles In 100 Places, and a corresponding tour. Will it be location specific for each place you perform in? You probably can’t talk about all 100 places each night…
Depending on where I am, if the venue happens to be within reasonable reach of one or more of the places in the book. The book is not a guide book. It’s not a guided tour of Britain. I had been thinking about writing for a while based on the TV career I have had over the last 20 years. I have been all around Britain, all around the coast nine times and I have criss-crossed the interior. It occurred to me that I have seen so many places and a lot of them unfamiliar to most people; it seemed to me that there was a story to be told. With each one of these 100 places, there is a grand narrative of Britain. Part of the fun of it all is that for me, being able to go and ‘physically’ stand in places where history happened, such as battlefields, graveyards, grand buildings, all places where events actually unfolded. So apart from anything else, each of these 100 places is somewhere when anybody can go, and if they are wired up the same way that I am, then there is a thrill to being in certain places knowing that 50 years or 500 years previously, something happened there.
So in essence then, you wanted to showcase what ‘we’ British have in and around our shores?
The point of the book is to give people a sense of how much has happened here. My feeling at the moment, and I get it myself from watching and reading the news is that there is a lot of anxiety in Britain and around the world. People are worried about all sorts of things such as politics, Brexit, President Trump, global warming, plastic in the oceans, Vladmir Putin and the Novichok poisonings. There is an awful lot of stressful news around, but if you didn’t have history, it can be easy to think that things are worse now than they have ever been and that we are living in a potentially dangerous point in history.
Yes, but evidence shows that history is/was dangerous – isn’t that a cause for concern for the future and why now, that people currently live in a climate of fear?
There is a great deal of reassurance to be taken from looking back at a million years of history and know that much more has happened here. Somehow we have all come through it all. We have had our wars of religion, our civil wars, we’ve been invaded, and we came under threat of dictators bent on world domination in the 20th century. Britain has always been here, and our ancestors have been here and coped with, adapted to and overcome everything that’s been thrown at them. It’s very instructive to be given places that you can go to and just take in the atmosphere of the place, be it a grand building, a clifftop, a lighthouse, a castle or a battlefield. Some of these places seem to be imbued with an atmosphere borne of the events that unfolded there.
It can bring people back to normality in a way. When you look at the news, it’s all propaganda and fear, isn’t it?
Yeah! It’s very easy to feel that as we have so much access to information at the moment, unfiltered really, its coming at us out of everything, your fridge practically tells you the news now! It’s not distilled and edited in the way that it was even when I was a reporter for a newspaper. People are being swamped with a tsunami of data about everything and I think everyone’s heads are ringing with it. There is some therapeutic value to be had from history as it allows you to draw back from what is happening now in 2018 and see those events in the context of a much bigger picture.
So you’re hoping to bring people’s anxieties down, then?
You can get too focused on the present. You get too tied up with what is happening at this minute. And there is a valid comment about being in the moment and paying attention to what’s happening right now but conversely it can also be too much. I think you can draw breath and pull back and think about what happened in such-a-such-a-place 50 or 100 years ago, and you then get a sense of the longer arc of history, of which we are a part. We are all survivors. Everyone that is alive today in Britain or anywhere else in the world, we are all remarkable survivors, we are all connected back through parents and grandparents and back through a line of people over a 100,000 years! It is an extraordinary story really. My interest in history stemmed from childhood when I realised that both of my grandfathers had survived the First World War, albeit both of them had been injured. When I did the First World War at school, rather than it being about something that had happened to millions of people 70 years ago, I knew that both of my grandfathers had been hurt by it. I used to think that if they were slightly hurt worse, I wouldn’t be here at all. And if either of my grandfathers hadn’t made it through the war, then you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation now!
Neil Oliver: The Story Of The British Isles In 100 Places, Grand Theatre, Swansea, Wed 17 Oct; St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Thurs 18; Theatr Brychieniog, Brecon, Wed 31 Tickets: £15-£26.95. Info: www.neiloliver.com